What is Anemia? Symptoms, Types, and Treatment
Anemia is the most common blood disorder – it affects around 25% of the global population, and is typically more common in women and children. In the U.S., African Americans are 3 times more likely than white Americans to develop anemia. While certain demographics are more prone than others, it is possible for anyone to be diagnosed with anemia at any age.
What is anemia?
Anemia occurs when an individual has an abnormally low number of red blood cells. Red blood cells are required for transporting oxygen through the body to different organs. When your organs are not able to receive a steady supply of oxygen, they stop functioning as well as they should. People who develop anemia often report feeling tired and sluggish, as a result of the low oxygen levels in their blood.
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Need an anemia blood test?
Anemia is a common blood disorder that can be caused by a vitamin or mineral deficiency, an underlying infection, or other condition. A blood test can help your provider narrow down the cause of anemia to develop an effective treatment plan.
Signs and symptoms of anemia
Aside from a general feeling of fatigue, individuals who are anemic also report the following symptoms:
- Feeling cold
- Restless leg
- Tachycardia (fast heart beat)
Symptoms of anemia for women and men are typically the same.
Types of anemia
There are many types of anemia, but they are broken down into three primary groups:
- Anemia caused by loss of blood – This can happen due to surgery or trauma; stomach ulcers, gastritis, or tumors that cause internal bleeding; or even heavy menstruation, often associated with fibroids.
- Anemia due to decreased red blood cells or poor production of red blood cells – Iron-deficiency anemia falls into this category, as well as sickle cell anemia. A variety of vitamin and mineral deficiencies can lead to anemia, as well as bone marrow or stem-cells issues.
- Anemia caused by loss or destruction of red blood cells – hemolytic anemia happens when red blood cells become so fragile that they can no longer travel throughout the body. The causes of hemolytic anemia are not always readily apparent, but sometimes include lupus, an enlarged spleen, severe infection, snake or spider venom, or advanced liver disease.
What causes anemia?
The most common cause of anemia is lack of iron in the blood. Your body needs iron to produce hemoglobin, which is the protein in your red blood cells that carries oxygen to your organs. Folate and vitamin B12 are also necessary for the production of healthy red blood cells. When the body has trouble absorbing B12, it leads to a vitamin deficiency form of anemia, called pernicious anemia.
B12 and folate deficiencies can also cause macrocytic anemia, a condition in which red blood cells become enlarged, and healthy red blood cells are low in number. If left untreated, B12 and folate deficiencies can also lead to nervous system disorders.
What causes anemia that is not rooted in iron-deficiency?
Inflammation caused by certain diseases, like HIV/AIDS, cancer, arthritis, Crohn’s disease, and kidney disease can all inhibit the production of red blood cells, leading to anemia. Certain blood diseases can cause hemolytic anemia, where red blood cells die off faster than the body can replace them. Hemolytic anemia can either be an inherited condition, or one that develops over time.
Sickle cell anemia is an example of an inherited hemolytic anemia. It is characterized by malformed red blood cells that grow into the shape of a crescent, or sickle. These cells are weak, and only exist for 10-20 days, whereas healthy red blood cells last for about 120 days.
If your provider thinks you may have anemia, he or she will likely order a blood test. A Complete Blood Count, or CBC, can tell your doctor not only how many red blood cells you have, but also can indicate their size and shape. This is helpful in diagnosing the type of anemia you have. There are other blood tests for anemia that your provider might order, like a vitamin B12 or B9 test, or an iron test.
After receiving the results of the CBC and supplemental blood tests (if necessary), your provider will be able to diagnose whether or not you have anemia. The process of diagnosing anemia can vary, depending on what type of the disease your provider suspects you have. Urine tests can also be used to determine if the anemia is hemolytic. You may even need to undergo a colonoscopy to determine whether or not you have unknown issues with gastrointestinal bleeding. In some cases, your provider might even order a bone marrow biopsy. Diagnosing the type of anemia you have is crucial for developing an effective treatment plan.
Treatment will depend on the results of the tests your provider ordered. Once your provider has found the root of the condition, he or she will treat not just the anemia itself, but also its cause.
Most often, anemia can be cured by dietary changes, or by the introduction of iron supplements into your daily routine. However, if your anemia was caused by internal bleeding, your provider may recommend surgical repair. This often involves fixing hiatal hernias and ulcers.
In rare cases of anemia caused by genetic disorders, you may have to undergo erythropoietin (EPO) injections, or even a bone marrow transplant. EPO is a hormone that signals to your bone marrow to produce red blood cells.
Which foods should I eat and which foods should I avoid, if I have anemia?
Eating foods rich in iron can help reverse iron-deficiency anemia. These include red meat, legumes, dark leafy greens like spinach, and iron-fortified cereals. There are many foods that are good for preventing anemia, and you should not have to undergo a restrictive diet to combat iron-deficiency anemia. However, certain foods can impair iron production, and while you likely won’t be asked to remove them from your diet entirely, your provider might suggest that you limit your intake of milk, soy protein, egg whites, and coffee.
If left untreated, anemia may result in serious complications. It can lead to cardiac issues, such as a fast or irregular heartbeat and even cardiac arrest; over time anemia also weakens the immune system.
Can anemia affect my weight?
Different people encounter different issues with weight in relation to anemia. Some people may suddenly lose weight since low levels of iron tend to diminish appetite. However, other individuals can experience weight gain, as low iron levels inhibit the body’s ability to oxidize fats.
How does anemia affect pregnancy?
Anemia can cause serious issues during pregnancy, including problems with fetal development and premature labor. Symptoms of anemia during pregnancy don’t differ very much from symptoms any other time, though it may be difficult for the patient to notice fatigue, as pregnancy induces fatigue on its own.
Anemia can strike anyone at any age. However, women and people of African descent tend to have the highest incidence of anemia. Very young children and adults over 65 are also considered high-risk groups.
How does anemia affect children?
Children with anemia can experience slower growth and development, painful and swollen joints, and be at a higher risk for bone marrow disease, leukemia, and other cancers.
How does anemia affect older adults?
For senior adults, anemia can be particularly harmful. It can lead to cardiovascular disease and a greatly increased risk of falls and broken bones. Symptoms of dying from anemia include severely impaired cognitive function, extreme fatigue, a swollen and sore tongue, cold hands and feet, chest pain, and shortness of breath.
How can I prevent anemia?
Not all anemia can be prevented – certain types are due to inherited disorders, or are a byproduct of other underlying conditions. However, the vast majority of anemia is caused by iron deficiency, which can be overcome simply by making some key changes to your diet. Eating iron-rich foods and taking iron or vitamin supplements can help you replenish your stores of iron. It is also advised to abstain from drinking coffee or tea with your meals, as they can impede iron absorption.
When should I see a doctor?
If you experience the symptoms discussed in this article and are concerned that you might have anemia, consult a physician as soon as possible. You can find a primary care physician at Tripment Health who can help you order lab tests or diagnostic imaging, and develop a treatment plan that right for you.
Are there different kinds of anemia?
There are many different types of anemia. Most are caused by an iron deficiency, but some are due to bleeding (either surgical, trauma, or internal disorders) or a genetic trait. Only a doctor can diagnose the type and severity/level of anemia. If you are experiencing symptoms of anemia, call your provider and discuss your next steps.
What are the signs and symptoms of anemia?
Anemia causes fatigue, headaches and dizziness, pale skin, chest pains, and tachycardia. While anemia is fatal in rare cases, it is usually reversible with dietary changes or medications and surgery.
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